Losses run deep
Girard’s $4.9M investment in 2 lakes yields little but debt, disappointment
Robert Stranger of Boardman, an enviornmentalist stands near the shore of the lower Girard Lake, which was drained in 2006. The city of Girard purchased the upper and lower Girard Lakes in 1995, but the 1,000-acre property never reached development potential. Stranger said he would like to see the lower lake saved and used as a park.(Photo by Richard Darbey/The News Outlet)
Published September 19, 2012 in The Vindicator(Link)
By CHRISTOPHER KOCHERA
State Route 11 intersects two lakes in southern Trumbull County near the city.
The lake along the eastern edge of the highway, towering above the other, remains full. On the lower lake’s southern shore rests a 45-foot-high concrete dam that once held back millions of gallons of water.
Now it holds back nothing but shoulder-high thistles and scrub grass that have replaced the lower lake, which was drained in 2006.
As the water disappeared, so did the city’s plans for the multimillion-dollar property, purchased by Girard 17 years ago.
Though local officials acknowledged the property may have been a poor investment, some still see potential in the upper and lower Girard Lakes.
“I think the city is missing out on a good chance to develop an area or at least save it for future use as a park,” said Robert Stanger, 81, a local environmentalist.
“I want to see it saved,” the Boardman resident said while standing on the lower lake’s former shoreline.
Formerly known as the Girard and Liberty Lakes, the city purchased the 1,000-acre property in 1995 from the Ohio Water Service with a $2.5 million loan from the Ohio Water Development Authority. After paying 20 years of interest, Girard expects to pay about $4.9 million by 2015.
Girard Mayor James Melfi took office in January 2000, five years after the purchase. Left to manage the property, Melfi says the purchase was made without evaluating all the costs.
“The sole purpose at that time was a water source providing the city of Girard and its outlying customers with water and leaving the Mahoning Valley Sanitary District,” Melfi said. “Unfortunately, we weren’t thinking of infrastructure and the costs associated with providing treated water.” MVSD supplies water to Niles, Youngstown and McDonald.
Melfi said Girard purchased the property knowing that the 1918 Ambursen-style dam on the lower Girard Lake would need significant repairs or replacement.
According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, heavy rain could have caused the dam to fail, affecting up to 300 people living downstream near Tibbetts-Wick Road.
“The thought was that grants would be provided to the city to make improvements to the dam,” Melfi said.
But only one grant was acquired, and it fell short of the resources needed to deal with the deteriorating dam.
“We had $400,000 to make improvements to a dam that, if replaced, was going to exceed $10 million, and to be repaired significantly was going to be in the area of $4 million and $8 million,” Melfi said.
The federal government granted the city $16 million for repairs, but the city lost the funding when it was unable to come up with its 35 percent share, or about $5.6 million. With pressure from the Corps of Engineers, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and a lawsuit from then-Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro, the city breached the lower lake dam in 2007 at a cost of near $100,000. The remaining balance went to the general maintenance of the lakes.
“The decision was quite easy to make,” said Melfi, who doesn’t shy from criticism over the lakes’ purchase. “To date, the purchase of that property, in every regard, has been unsuccessful.”
Jim Stacchiotti, club director for the Girard Lakes Bass Club, managed the lakes from 1996 to 2004. Although the lakes were never intended for recreational purposes, the city wanted to find a way to make them profitable, Stacchiotti said.
He said fishing passes for March through October sold for $100. Boat rentals were offered, with the watercraft leased from private individuals. The city’s budget woes, however, forced closure of recreational programs on the lakes in 2004.
Many trails on the property are popular with local all-terrain vehicle riders, while the waters of the upper Girard Lake attract anglers. But the property is closed to the public.
The city has tried to keep trespassers off the property, but the size makes it hard.
“It’s 1,000 acres; it’s impossible to fence off and keep trespassers out,” Melfi said. “We just ask that it’s private property; please do not go on it.”
The ATVs, however, still blaze trails through the surrounding area. The motorists pour in from as far north as Vienna Township.
“We just go back there because there’s a lot of trails,” said Matt Carney of Vienna. “There’s been almost 15 of us riding at a time. It’s a big cut-through for people riding from Niles to other places.”
Carney and his friends recently have stopped riding on the property due to increased police presence.
Finding a purpose
Stanger said he does not want to see the property sold to industry, even if it was used for its original purpose — fresh water.
“I think Meander [Reservoir] is more than sufficient for the area. The area is fortunate to have that good of a water supply,” he said. “Buying the lakes was a ridiculous proposal, and using it as a water resource is out of the question.”
Stacchiotti said nothing will happen to the lakes until they are paid off. In the future, the property at the lower lake could be classified as wetlands and used as a land bank, allowing the city to recoup some of the costs.
“The property at the lower lake is worth maybe a couple thousand an acre,” Stacchiotti said. “As a wetland, it’s worth $28,000 an acre.”
The property, classified as wetlands, would be sold to developers to offset wetlands destroyed by infrastructure and commercial development.
But Melfi said the city has no immediate plans for the property.
“This city, in its current financial state, even out of fiscal emergency, would have to raise water rates astronomically in order to do that. And that’s not something we’re willing to do here,” the mayor said. “I’m looking forward to 2015 to have payment complete and the water fund to have a significantly strong balance.”
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